The thoughts conveyed in this article are the writer’s alone, and the following content does not reflect the official views or policies of the United States Army, the United States Department of Defense, or the United States Government.
Growing up in California through my teen years, I was exposed to a society that often encouraged a counter culture. At the time, it coupled nicely with an even more common rebellious teenage attitude. I lived in a world that praised being different, special, valued, and exceptional—all because we were born that way. It was our right to be different.
It was that same time of celebrated individualism during which I met a communist for the first time. He was a student at my high school. Since then, I’ve never met a communist who wasn’t overtly proud of this political affiliation. If it wasn’t the fact that equality of outcome was exciting, it was at least “cool” to be different. In this particular case, perhaps, it even added value to his adolescent identity. But what matters most is that this student failed to fully understand that in a communist society, his parents never would have been able to send him to our private high school. Obviously, in a communist society, the individual privileges and luxuries he enjoyed then would never have come to fruition. What sweet irony. It’s so easy to identify with a group without having to support it through personal sacrifice.
Even then, I knew that to be a free American meant that one had the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Born into that freedom, my generation has been coddled into a society where it’s cool to be narcissistic, shallow, uneducated, and entitled. This is the world we live in. At times, I do find myself dismounting my high horse and posting the same narcissistic “selfies” and using my income to satisfy personal indulgences—the same ones which I accuse my generation of partaking. As I look retrospectively, attempting to see the big picture, this behavior puts more at stake than just our reputations. Some of it actually threatens the very privilege of being an American citizen. This behavior invites something sinister that most of us haven’t seen since 1989. Nevertheless, communism seems to be making a comeback. Eight long years since my high school graduation, on this day, I met another communist. He ostensibly hid his beliefs under a veil of fairness and equality, wishing for the overall betterment of society through the redistribution of wealth. Admittedly a liberal, he denied the fact that his defense of increasing taxes for the rich made him, at least in my mind, a Marxist sympathizer.
This discovery started innocently enough with a conversation about the recent State of the Union Address delivered by President Obama. The key point of discussion was the president’s desire to offer two years of community college to all, free of charge. My point of contention rose out of my general distaste of higher tax rates to support a larger government spending program. The solution, it seemed, was found in increasing tax rates for the top income earners and America’s most profitable businesses. I based my defense not in my affiliation with any political party, but instead in the proposal of defining this “free education”.
In my life, I’ve learned that nothing comes without a price tag—not even our freedoms. It comes at the expense of the American citizen. Of course, I asked this communist (we’ll call him Karl) who would hold these potential students accountable for their success or failure if these students placed no stake in it. If it was the other way around, would it be fair to take someone else’s money to pay for my education? I asked these questions, and I listened to Karl’s answers. I soon realized that I was talking to a man who firmly believed in class warfare. Certainly, a proud American couldn’t be a treacherous commie!
We’ve associated the concept of redistribution of wealth with the communist ideal ever since its advent about 150 years ago. While this Marxist ideology has yet to fade into obscurity under the towering success of capitalism around the world, one can easily make the case that communism has never proven to be historically feasible—not in its true form. It failed over and over again after so many practiced attempts. It simply can’t compete against human nature. Communism contends with our base desires to be individuals, to compete, and to survive. These concepts actively fortify the strengths and success of capitalism; ingenuity and creativity are responsible for our ever-growing society.
Americans love choosing teams. Through no fault of our own, many Americans planted each of their respective flags in capitalism’s camp long ago. In fact, we should argue that it’s not a fault at all, but instead, a favorable choice when confronted with our lives being “better red than dead”. Whether or not we believe in the moral virtues of capitalism over those of communism, it’s fair to assess that the success experienced in America is due to our devotion to creativity and productivity in a free society. Everyone has a chance to succeed.
The things that make United States of America the greatest country in the world are highlighted in the greatest aspect of what it means to be human: we value the individual. Even though humanity treasures tribal, group, organizational, or societal identities, it is our individuality that contributes most to our desire to survive. Our human history is highlighted by our human nature. The strong to what they can, and the weak suffer what they must. The individual, even if part of a group, doesn’t owe his success to or blame his failures on others. Individual responsibility matters to me. To Karl, the individual is expendable if the (perceived) success of the group is compromised.
The idea of individual responsibility is something my parents instilled in me through my adolescence, and it’s something the Army cemented in me as I matured into an adult. I don’t think anyone should have to take care of me, and I don’t expect society to bear the burden of liability for my actions. The communist ideal holds society hostage over the responsibilities of the individual. So it would seem that our bigger government means to entitle each citizen to all American privileges. Those privileges, as I have even discovered, are often confused as rights. Karl believed it was every American’s right to go to college, and somebody had to make it available to him. In his mind, it was his right to be propped up by others who had the available assets. To him, it was only fair that the rich not only should support the poor, but they have to. It was his right to take from the strong because it was, in his mind, fair. He would prefer equality of outcome over equality of opportunity. Society would rule over the individual.
He neglected the idea that increasing corporate taxes would actually have the effect of reducing the tax base over time. Higher taxes decrease companies’ available spending budgets, thus leading to lower employee wages (and lower expendable income), more layoffs, companies taking their business out of the country, and even business bankruptcies. Less money is pumped into the economy, and as revenues decrease, so do the federal tax revenues. Spiking the tax revenue stream by levying higher taxes may have good short term effects, but in the long run, it constricts the economy and cripples government spending. We would surely see the deficit and our national debt increase again.
I explained this vicious cycle, but he was adamant that the rich would still be able to afford this tax increase. This was America, after all. America is so great, so everyone in America should enjoy a great life, and everyone should contribute to that…right? If only the rich paid their “fair share”. We’re the richest country in the world! Why wouldn’t we be able to do this? It just so happens that the wealthiest 1% of America’s population already contributes 24% of federal spending. That actually equates to an effective tax rate that is three times higher than that of the middle class. I explained this, but that still wasn’t fair enough for him.
Going back to the original premise of President Obama’s proposal, we must consider that it is important to only give credit where credit is due. The value of an individual education should not be discredited. But no matter our individual differences, everyone must accept the fact that our privileges are earned, and many of them are not bestowed upon us simply through the graciousness of being born in America. We have these privileges because previous generations earned them for us. This generation—my generation—grew up with many lifted burdens and nonexistent responsibilities. On the modest end, we can get the freshest food in our stores, we can buy gasoline whenever we want, we can choose which movie to see on Saturday, and many of us go to college. On the extreme end, toddlers have iPods, sixteen-year-old girls get new cars for their birthdays on reality TV shows, we yell at the waiter when they bring us distilled water instead of tap water, and we don’t actually have to do sacrifice our livelihoods in support of our nation’s longest wars. We never grew up in want, and our wants became the base level of our needs. Our wants became our expectations.
In light of all of this discussion, is it really the best thing for America to provide another government handout? What more could we lose if we continued to increase these tax rates? Certainly, bestowing an education for all Americans is a great way to provide more to the middle class. Education is important to each individual. But the issue isn’t about education. It’s about a new generation of entitlement. It’s about this Robin Hood horror story that the “have nots” deserve what others have. People in this world want more without having to pay for it. We see it with insurmountable credit card debts and the level of consumption with which we’ve all become too familiar.
There are those, however, who still recognize value when it is clearly presented. In fact, if this education effort becomes federal law, it’s likely that many of these graduates will be able to contribute significantly and positively back to society. But how do we measure the rate of return for this investment? As we consider the notion that this portion of the federal budget is indeed an investment, I should compare our government spending to that of an investment firm. In the private sector, money managers do not make significant investment decisions based on barely-qualifiable expectations. Even more so, these investors don’t do it negligently with their client’s money. In this example, the American taxpayer plays the role of the client, and the federal government has a responsibility to ensure the rate of return on these investments is beneficial to all of those who pay for them. Denying these new taxes in support of this subsidized education shouldn’t reflect the idea that rich people are greedy. Demonizing our citizens and inciting class warfare isn’t the answer.
Let us never forget that taxation without representation sparked our own American Revolution and war of independence from the British Empire. We profoundly devoted the birth of our Nation to the idea of freedom from taxes that don’t pertain to the tax payers. In theory, our paid taxes should directly correlate to the services we later receive from the government spending program. I then asked this question of myself: what is a fair tax rate? I wonder if it is even possible to agree on a distributive sense of social and fiscal justice in an unfair world.
Despite this unanswered question, we do know that America is the land of opportunity. We were granted the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by our founding fathers. Nothing is owed to us except the freedom to make our own decisions. The American Dream makes that possible, and in the words of John Burroughs, “for anything worth having, one must pay the price; and the price is always work, patience, love, self-sacrifice—no paper currency, no promises to pay, but the gold of real service.” His words exemplify the importance of individual responsibility and the significance of personal investment in the American Dream. Through hard work, each person has the ability to achieve upward social mobility. All men are created equal, but it doesn’t always end that way.